18 international stars to watch for PyeongChang 2018

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Eighteen of the most dominant and decorated international athletes with eyes on the PyeongChang Olympics in one year:

Marcel Hirscher, Austria, Alpine Skiing
En route this season to become the first man to win six World Cup overall titles, and he’s done it consecutively. Hirscher has won World Cup or world championships races in every discipline but downhill, but he’s set to end his career with a different distinction if he doesn’t deliver in PyeongChang — best skier never to win Olympic gold. Hirscher, a Sochi silver medalist, reportedly said he doesn’t plan to race to 2022.

Kaillie Humphries, Canada, Bobsled
Greatest female driver in history and two-time reigning Olympic champion. Humphries has taken a backseat to American rival and training partner Elana Meyers Taylor this winter, but remains in position to take a fourth World Cup season title in the last five years. Humphries’ collection of tattoos includes the date (2.24.10) of her first Olympic title on the side of her hand with the word “Believe.”

Mikael Kingsbury, Canada, Freestyle Skiing
The Québécois was the pre-Sochi favorite but took silver behind countryman Alexandre Bilodeau, who repeated as Olympic champion and then retired. Kingsbury, known to wear a lucky undershirt that states, “It’s Good to be the King,” took the defeat in stride, winning seven straight World Cup events in 2015 and 2016 and running his streak of World Cup season titles to five.

Mark McMorris, Canada, Snowboarding
The rare snowboarder from Saskatchewan earned the nickname “McRib” after breaking a rib in the 2014 Winter X Games, 12 days before Sochi, and losing his favorite status for slopestyle’s Olympic debut. He came back to snag bronze. This time around, McMorris is returning from breaking his right femur in an Air and Style big air crash last Feb. 21. He earned medals in slope and big air at X Games last month.

Marie-Philip Poulin, Canada, Hockey
The daughter of Quebec hospital workers was dubbed “the female Sidney Crosby” even before scoring both goals in the 2010 Olympic final against the U.S. Then she scored the golden goal in overtime of the 2014 Olympic final. In 2015, she was named captain of the national team at age 25.

Ester Ledecka, Czech Republic, Snowboarding/Skiing
Just 21 years old, poised to become the first athlete to qualify for an Olympics in both Alpine skiing and snowboarding. She leads the World Cup standings in Alpine snowboarding while also competing in Alpine skiing World Cup races with a best finish of 13th. Her grandfather won Olympic hockey silver and bronze for Czechoslovakia.

Martina Sablikova, Czech Republic, Speed Skating
The five-time Olympic medalist, with a spider-like, 5-foot-7, 117-pound frame, recently lost an international race of 3000m or longer for the first time since the start of 2015. Since Sochi, she won two more world allround titles and finished 12th in the 2015 World Road Cycling Championships time trial but was unable to race at the Rio Games due to a technicality.

Martin Fourcade, France, Biathlon
The three-time Sochi medalist is arguably the world’s most dominant winter sports athlete. Has won 10 of the 15 individual World Cup events this season. Came within 2.8 seconds of sweeping all four individual events at the 2016 World Championships. Fourcade is also vocal, threatening to boycott events if the Russian doping problem isn’t adequately addressed.

Marie Martinod, France, Freestyle Skiing
Took silver in Sochi after coming out of a five-year retirement (including childbirth). Has won both World Cups this season (going 11 years between wins), plus the Winter X Games for the first time.

Yuzuru Hanyu, Japan, Figure Skating
The standard of excellence in the sport, when he’s on. In 2015, Hanyu shattered the record for total points in a competition by 27.13. Two weeks later, he scored another 8.03 points higher to win the prestigious Grand Prix Final by 37.48 points. Inconsistency cost him at the last two world championships, where Spanish training partner Javier Fernandez overtook Hanyu’s short-program lead for gold.

Sara Takanashi, Japan, Ski Jumping
Takanashi may be the most towering 100-pound athlete on the planet. She has won 26 of her 35 World Cup starts in the last two years. The only drawback is her record at the Olympics and World Championships — a shocking fourth in Sochi and no golds in three individual worlds starts.

Sven Kramer, Netherlands, Speed Skating
Kramer may be best known to Americans for stepping into the wrong lane during the 2010 Olympic 10,000m (at the direction of his coach) and being disqualified despite skating four seconds faster than the Olympic record. But to the Dutch he is simply a winner, perhaps the greatest skater of all time. He hasn’t lost a major international 5000m in four years and, this season, showed his versatility by winning his first World Cup 1500m in eight years.  

Ole Einar Bjoerndalen, Norway, Biathlon
The Biathlon King broke the record for career Winter Olympic medals in Sochi by reaching 13. He could break a tie for gold medals (eight) with retired Norwegian cross-country skier Bjorn Daehlie in PyeongChang, if he qualifies for a seventh Olympics at age 44. That appears likely, given he earned medals in three of four individual races at the 2016 Worlds and is the second-ranked Norwegian biathlete this season.

Kamil Stoch, Poland, Ski Jumping
Swept both individual golds in Sochi while wearing a military-green helmet in honor of the Polish Air Force. Plummeted to 22nd in the World Cup standings a season ago. Re-emerged this season by winning the prestigious Four Hills Tournament for the first time and winning four straight World Cups in January.

Yevgenia Medvedeva, Russia, Figure Skating
Medvedeva, who started competing on the senior international level in 2015, hasn’t lost since November 2015 and is the biggest gold-medal favorite in figure skating. She could go into PyeongChang riding a streak of dominance not seen since Katarina Witt.

Alexander Ovechkin, Russia, Hockey
Ovechkin’s commitment to his national team may be unrivaled in men’s hockey. The three-time Hart Trophy winner has already said he intends to play in PyeongChang regardless of if the NHL officially participates in the Winter Games. He took the same stance this time four years ago, while the NHL was deciding whether it would participate in Sochi. Still, Ovechkin has yet to win a medal in three Olympic appearances.

Javier Fernandez, Spain, Figure Skating
Fernandez has been so great that he’s kicked soccer off the front page of Spanish sports daily Marca with his conquests, including the last two world championships. He comes from a nation with maybe 20 ice rinks and was bullied growing up for being a figure skater. Now, Fernandez is tight with Real Madrid and receives letters from the Spanish royal family after victories. He should win Spain’s third-ever Winter Olympic medal and first since 1992.

Lara Gut, Switzerland, Alpine Skiing
Reigning World Cup overall champion as the best all-around female Alpine racer. At 17 years old, Gut took silver in the 2009 World Championships downhill behind Lindsey Vonn. Gut then missed the 2010 Olympics with a dislocated hip and didn’t fully realize her potential until the last few years, after co-starring in a 2012 Italian film. Gut is Vonn’s toughest foe in speed races and has over the years stoked the rivalry with quotes.

PYEONGCHANG 2018 COVERAGE
Storylines | 18 U.S. Stars | 18 Global Stars |
10 Unique Olympic Hopeful Stories
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Grigory Rodchenkov, Russian doping whistleblower, still lives in fear

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His head covered in a black balaclava, adjusting dark goggles obscuring his eyes, Grigory Rodchenkov grows anxious if any part of his face can be seen.

Exposing Russia’s state-sponsorship doping scheme forced Rodchenkov into hiding in the United States five years ago. Revealing his current identity is still too risky for the chemist turned whistleblower, even in a video interview from an undisclosed location.

“It’s my security measures because I have physical threats to be assassinated,” Rodchenkov told The Associated Press. “And I want to live.”

Evidence from Rodchenkov that has already turned Vladimir Putin‘s Russia into international sporting outcasts continues to be used in cases against athletes along with data from his former laboratory in Moscow.

“Putin, he is quite logical. He separates opposition in two ways — enemies … betrayers,” Rodchenkov said. “I am falling in the betrayers’ category and all betrayers should be beheaded, cut, dead. So there is no doubt that he wants me to be dead.”

It has not deterred him from documenting his life story in “The Rodchenkov Affair: How I Brought Down Putin’s Secret Doping Empire,” revisiting how he conspired with his country to corrupt sports and then tries to show contrition by turning star witness.

Rodchenkov was the brains behind the Duchess cocktail of anabolic steroids and cover-up that turned Russia into a medal machine at the home Olympics in Sochi in 2014, topping the standings with 13 gold medals before disqualifications.

Russian spies ensured the Duchess would not be detected in doping tests as FSB agents used a hole in the wall of the Sochi laboratory to swap out the dirty samples with clean urine at night.

“For me, it was the end of doping control,” Rodchenkov said. “If we can do it, why others cannot?”

The doping cover-up extended beyond the Winter Olympics, into the Summer Games, Paralympics, world track and field championships and every major sport.

Some Russians were barred from competing at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Summer Games and 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Games as the International Olympic Committee remains opposed to blanket bans on countries.

So Russian athletes can still compete on the international stage if they can show they are clean, despite a four-year ban from major international sporting events being imposed on the nation last year for a fresh cover-up, including tampering with data gained from Rodchenkov’s former lab in Moscow.

“Sport is a part of Putin’s politics and showing to the West how good Russia is,” Rodchenkov said. “You cannot trust Russia. You cannot trust the certification authorities, and (anti-doping) laboratories cannot be allowed to be restored within the foreseeable future.”

Especially now, according to Rodchenkov, following constitutional changes allowing Putin to run for two more six-year terms, in 2024 and 2030,

“Until 2036,” Rodchenkov said, “no trust.”

But why now trust Rodchenkov as he presents a virtuous image at odds with his deep collusion with the state to cheat?

“When you are laboratory director and you have 50 employees and you are reporting to your high ups at the ministry, I could not even think about morals,” he said, dismissing concerns about any long-term damage to the health of athletes he allowed to be pumped with steroids.

“It’s extremely debatable and still ungrounded,” he said. “We see the generation who is now in the end of their lives of 70s and 80s, which are still … in a good physical condition after steroid programs.”

Go back four decades and Rodchenkov was starting out in a Soviet system learning how to manipulate doping controls.

“I had honestly, I’m sorry, but I had huge feelings of accomplishment,” he said. “Those athletes I helped to (win) were extremely talented and I could not understand, with the coach, how he or she may lose to others. The only explanation was doping. Then using some programs, we won gold medals. Honestly it was like leveling the field.

“Again, ‘morals’ is maybe vocabulary from American life but not from Soviet and Russian. In (the) Soviet (Union) it was the Soviet moral, in Russia there is no morals.”

It helps when the athletes are compliant.

“This is the huge problem of the militarization of Russia sport,” Rodchenkov said. “They follow orders, they are disciplined but they cannot tell the truth because they have given the oath to the Russian state and consider foreigners as potential enemies or even actual enemies. That’s why in Russia there are three ways – lying, cheating and denying.”

Rodchenkov has had to convince the world he has shed those ways and is coming clean. More of the cases he helped to cover-up could soon come to light after the World Anti-Doping Agency shared data – of samples tested up to 2015, and tampering that continued into 2019 – that was retrieved from the Moscow testing lab at the heart of the state-backed doping program.

“The problem is that the people from outside cannot understand what is going on inside sports,” he said. “Only whistleblowers could do that. But in corrupted countries you have to escape and we need to be preserved.”

For Rodchenkov that means living a life constantly in fear of being recognized as happened on a train in the US.

“It was a student,” he recalled. “I told him, `Forget you are meeting me, yes it’s me, don’t tell anyone.’ … I disappeared again.”

MORE: Russia track and field faces expulsion if it misses deadline

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Noah Lyles, more world champs race in Monaco; TV, live stream schedule

Noah Lyles
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Noah Lyles headlines a bevy of world champions slated for the first full-on Diamond League meet of the abbreviated track and field season, live on NBC Sports on Friday.

Monaco hosts the strongest fields of any meet since the world championships 10 months ago. Olympic Channel: Home of Team USA and NBC Sports Gold air coverage on Friday at 2 p.m. ET.

Reigning world champions include Lyles (200m), Grant Holloway (110m hurdles), Donavan Brazier (800m) and Sam Kendricks (pole vault), and those are just the Americans.

Swede Mondo Duplantis, who twice raised the pole vault world record in February, takes on Kendricks in Monaco. Distance stars Sifan Hassan, Hellen Obiri, Beatrice Chepkoech, Timothy Cheruiyot and Joshua Cheptegei dot the fields, too.

The Diamond League season was due to start in April, but the coronavirus pandemic halted large-gathering track meets until now. Repurposed versions of Diamond League meets in Oslo and Zurich were held the last two months with fewer events and athletes and some entrants racing from different countries.

After Monaco, more Diamond League meets are scheduled for Stockholm (Aug. 23), Lausanne (Sept. 2), Brussels (Sept. 4), Naples (Sept. 17), Doha (Sept. 25) and China (Oct. 17).

Here are the Monaco entry lists. Here’s the schedule of events (all times Eastern):

1:40 p.m. ET — Men’s Pole Vault
2:03 — Men’s 110m Hurdles
2:05 — Women’s High Jump
2:12 — Men’s 800m
2:17 — Women’s Triple Jump
2:19 — Women’s 5000m
2:42 — Men’s 400m Hurdles
2:50 — Women’s 100m
2:57 — Men’s 1500m
3:07 — Women’s 400m
3:13 — Men’s 5000m
3:32 — Men’s 200m
3:39 — Women’s 100m
3:47 — Men’s 3000m Steeplechase

Here are five events to watch (statistics via Tilastopaja.org):

Men’s Pole Vault — 1:40 p.m.
The top field event of the meet includes the reigning Olympic champion (Brazil’s Thiago Braz), reigning world champion (Kendricks) and the world-record holder (Duplantis, who must be the favorite here). Kendricks and Duplantis already went head-to-head this spring, competing virtually from respective home pole-vault setups. Kendricks took their first six head-to-heads, back when Duplantis was a teenager, but the Louisiana-born Swede won all four of their indoor duels in February. Duplantis is the clear Tokyo Olympic favorite until proven otherwise.

Men’s 800m — 2:12 p.m.
The top four from the 2019 World Championships are entered. Brazier, 23, caught fire the last year. He broke the American record to win the world title. He broke his own American indoor record in February. Then, last month, Brazier took 1.33 seconds off his 1500m personal best. Nobody in the Monaco field has beaten Brazier since the start of 2018.

Women’s 5000m — 2:19 p.m.
Ethiopian-born Dutchwoman Sifan Hassan in world champion at 1500m and 10,000m, but she’s lost four of five meetings with two-time world champion Hellen Obiri of Kenya at 5000m. Hassan appears to be gearing up to race the 5000m in Tokyo, though, saying last month her eye was on a 1500m-5000m Olympic double had the Games been held this year. The 1500m preliminary heats and the 5000m final are separated by about 12 hours at the Olympics next year. Also in this field: three-time Olympian and former American record holder Shannon Rowbury, set for her first Diamond League race in nearly three years and since the birth of daughter Sienna.

Men’s 1500m — 2:57 p.m.
Last we saw Kenyan Timothy Cheruiyot in a 1500m, he led wire-to-wire en route to a 2.12-second victory in the world championships final. Only one man has beaten Cheruiyot in three years, countryman Elijah Manangoi, who is provisionally suspended due to whereabouts failures. The Monaco field does include Norwegian Jakob Ingebrigtsen (second-fastest man of 2019), Ethiopian Yomif Kejelcha (indoor mile world-record holder), Pole Marcin Lewandowski (world bronze medalist) and Craig Engels (2019 U.S. champion who was 10th at worlds).

Men’s 200m — 3:32 p.m.
Lyles and younger brother Josephus Lyles go head-to-head for the first time since January 2017. Noah has lost just one outdoor 200m since placing fourth at the 2016 Olympic Trials coming out of high school. Josephus, primarily a 400m sprinter in his developmnt, last month took a half-second off a five-year-old 200m personal best. His new best time — 20.24 seconds — would have placed third at the 2019 USATF Outdoor Championships behind Noah (19.78) and Christian Coleman (20.02).

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